The social agent, part 2: Connect

Mozilla Labs Official ConceptThis is the second part of the five part Mozilla Labs Concept Series on Online Identity. This post introduces and examines the verb “Connect” as the foundation of a more personalized browser — which I outlined in Part 1: The Social Agent.

Also take a look at the rest of my mockups (view as a slideshow) or visited the project overview.

. . .

When was the last time you created a new username and password so that you could make use of some website? Do you remember what username you picked, or which email address you used to sign up? Probably. But what about that support forum that you signed up for a couple weeks ago while you were home for the holidays? Did you write it down somewhere? Or worse: did you just use the same username and password that you use everywhere else?

Spreadsheets, text files, sticky notes, cheat-sheets, software and browser extensions — you name it, people have probably found some way to recruit every kind of notational tool there is to help them remember the countless passwords, PINs, IDs, usernames, and secrets needed to access the apps, websites, and services that they use on a regular basis. But we can do better.

Step 1: Activate

The social agent is designed to unify your online social experience. With that in mind, a social agent must become an extension of you in order to mediate your online interactions.

This is achieved by activating your browser against your preferred account provider when you first begin your online session, just as you activate your mobile phone before being able to make or receive calls. This is how the browser is turned into a social agent.

By activating your browser, you are effectively telling your browser who you are and where to store and access your data online.

Account Manager - Activate a New Account

Fortunately, you can activate using any account that you already have that supports a Connect API, like Twitter Connect or Facebook Connect (or soon, OpenID Connect). It is also conceivable to use the browser in an anonymous or “incognito mode”.

Step 2: Connect

Once activated, you can visit any site that supports Connect and with the click of a button, sign up and bring your profile, relationships, content, activities, and any other portable data with you. This process is identical to Facebook Connect or Twitter Connect, except that the interaction occurs between your social agent and the site you’re visiting.

What is a Connect API? Writing for the O’Reilly Radar blog in February last year, David Recordon defined the anatomy of “connect” as meeting four criteria:

  • Profile: Everything having to do with identity, account management and profile information ranging from sign in to sign out on the site I’m connecting with.
  • Relationships: Think social graph. Answers the questions of who do I know, who do I know who’s already here, and how I can invite others.
  • Content: Stuff. All of my posts, photos, bookmarks, video, links, etc that I’ve created on the site I’ve connected with.
  • Activity: Poked, bought, shared, posted, watched, loved, etc. All of the actions that things like the Activity Streams project are starting to take on.

OpenID ConnectThis is what the verb “connect” means for the social agent. The “connect” button communicates that your browser is going to share some amount of your profile data with the site that you’re connecting with. You’re not just signing in. You’re connecting — and creating a relationship with the site. You can of course change the data that the website gets — even after you’ve signed in — and the benefit of this model is that you have transparency into what data you’re sharing with whom.

Far from making it impossible for you to share your data, your social agent should help you mediate such decisions, guiding you about which sites to connect with, and providing context to help inform you actions.

Clicking Connect pulls a familiar browser-based UI

For this model to work, your connections are actually made between your preferred account provider and the third parties to which you’ve connected. Your account provider, then, acts as a hub for all of your online doings — collecting, maintaining, and mediating your browsing history, relationships and contacts, activities, transactions, content and media, and online profile. This provider should let you selectively configure how much, how little, or how long such your data is made available to third parties — much in the same way that you manage access on Twitter or Facebook today.

For you, this means that you get to pick an account provider of your choice — without needing to worry about remembering or managing passwords or usernames. Instead, you can have any number of accounts that are available to you wherever the web goes.

As a core feature of the social agent, connecting is the action you take whenever you want to establish an enduring an ongoing relationship with a site, service, or individual.

2 Comments

  1. Dmitry Risenberg said
    at 1am on Mar 14th # |

    Hi, Chris. Thanks for the interesting blog.
    Do we really need to rely on account providers to store all our online social data? Wouldn’t it be a better solution to have it all stored on user’s computer? The browser will communicate with a service whenever it is necessary and transfer all the necessary data. What if your identity provider suddenly stops working? You should have an account on another provider for such case, and they have to synchronize from time to time, so you can’t just have one account/password. May be social data should be stored both locally and online, the former being the main storage and the latter being used whenever some emergency happens?

  2. Nat said
    at 3pm on Mar 16th # |

    In response to Dmitry, I use six different computers on a regular basis. The reason I use certain tools generally follows three basic guidelines: 1) “How easy is it to get the data I create on this device to all of my other devices” 2) “How well can the data I create be read by the software on other devices (Mac at Work, Linux on Laptop, Windows at Home)” and 3) “How easy is it to use the software”.

    Most solutions to data syncing (such as Dropbox, Firefox Weave, Git) that I enjoy follow a distributed mind set. There is an online master server, but all of my clients are kept up to date, and if the server is down, I can use another client as a server until it comes back up.

    As for providers syncing, I do hope we come up with a format that all providers are willing to read and write. Data portability is so important this day and age.

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